I had been a teacher for ten years. In the midst of those ten years, I had given birth to two children. I felt strongly that parenting had helped me to become a better teacher, but there was still much to learn. In the early 1990’s a new educational model was coming into vogue in the public schools of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and in fact, across the nation – it was called inclusion. The philosophy was that special needs students should be included in regular education classes rather than separated from their peers. My principal assigned a special student to be included in my class. I’ll call her Alice. Alice was a year older than the other first grade students in my class, but her intellectual, behavioral, and emotional levels were probably about three or four years behind the rest of my students. She had been born with Down’s Syndrome.
I had feelings of dread about this experience until I met Alice’s mother. This woman was a gift to me, and most certainly a gift to Alice. This woman was a strong advocate for her daughter, but she was also in the real world of expectations of what classroom teachers can and cannot accomplish. Alice’s mother was a terrific support and sounding board for me as I learned how to work with and include Alice in my class. At the end of the year, I was amazed at how well the year had progressed, not only for Alice, but also for the rest of my students. I understood very clearly that Alice wasn’t the only one who had benefitted from being included in the regular education classroom. All the students had benefitted. They gained confidence in interacting, helping, supporting, and learning from Alice. Alice has now graduated from high school and is gainfully employed at a job she can successfully perform. It wouldn’t surprise me if a number of her classmates went on to become special education teachers or social workers. I felt that I could see those traits blossoming on a daily basis.
This experience let to, not so much a change in attitude, but an affirmation of something I had learned long ago from my own mother. She encouraged my brothers and me to wave to everyone! Talk to everyone. Acknowledge everyone.
My experience with Alice was a strong signal to me that I should always try to include everyone whenever possible. It doesn’t matter about a person’s skin color, intellectual level, mental health status, economic stratum, personality quirk, age, sexual preference, or self confidence. Whenever possible, my goal is to include all people whose path I cross, conveying a sincere interest in them and hoping they receive a measure of a sense of value.
This I believe: include ALL people in your circle of attention and kindness.
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